Monday, January 16, 2017

even zorro wore one

"The Mexican, whether young or old, crillo  or mestizo, general or laborer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile."

Now and then, I pick up my copy of Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude (a book I would highly recommend to anyone who takes living in Mexico seriously) to renew my attempts to better understand my Mexican neighbors. I am constantly perplexed at the contradictions I see daily. Neighbors who are friendly on the surface, but who are still obviously distant -- even in personal conversations.

I do not expect to ever crack the enigma. I doubt I ever could as an outsider. Certain attitudes simply become culturally hardwired for those who grow up here. I didn't grow up here. And I do not anticipate being able to do anything more than see Mexico through the eyes of people who see the contradictions -- even if they may not be able to fully describe them.

For me, Octavio Paz is one of those guides. Along with Jorge Castañeda. The fact that both of them were men of the left helps to explain their fondness for Hegelian contradictions. Or, at least, seeing the world through the prism of Hegelian contradictions.

Most of us northerners are usually happy to settle for seeing our Mexican neighbors through eyes that are forgiving of contradiction -- and, at best, vaguely patronizing; at worst, imperialistic lite. And, viewed only on the surface, Mexico appears to be made up of people who accept fate with a certain elan -- if not fatalism. People who are always open and helpful to those around them. People who are always willing to lend a hand.

But, by being satisfied with the surface, we miss the interesting truth under the surface.

And it is not just Mexicans who wear masks. I suspect the fact that Octavio Paz's chapter on "Mexican Masks" has made the mask theory so prevalent in the context of Mexican culture. But we all wear them. And for the same reason -- to protect ourselves. From one another. But also from reality.

Any dinner party is a testing ground for masks. You can almost see the woman to your right slipping hers on during the soup course. And there is very likelihood anyone will be able to slip past its Lone Ranger ambiguity.

During my stay in pilot school in Laredo, I attended more than my share of receptions. Almost the first question out of the wives of senior officers was: "And what does your father do for a living?"

Of course, it translated into: "Are you someone worth spending my time on -- or should I go talk to that young officer over there?" I usually made the choice easy by responding with something whimsical. "He runs guns to Bolivia." And, for all I knew, that was true. But it usually sent my interlocutor scurrying away. My mask remained firmly in place.

Several of my old friends and family members have told me they read my blog for only one reason -- they want to hear what I had been doing between my 20s and 60s. Apparently, I have a reputation for not being very forthcoming with my life. At least, not until stories ferment for several decades.

Maybe that is why I am so fascinated with Paz's observations. Mexicans use their face and smile to mask themselves, but so do I.

And I will put $50,000 (Mx) on the barrel head that you do, as well. 

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